There are a lot of ways in which joining a union is unlike being a member of any other sort of organization. One of the big reasons is that unions are small-d democratic. Unions are self-run, self-funded, and self-organized, meaning that, especially on the local union level, everyday members control the union. And not just on things like what should the union’s logo be, but on real, material issues, like who should be union leadership, how much dues should we charge, and should we accept the latest contract offer? If you pay your dues, you’re a voting member of your local union. If you’re a voting member of your local union, you have a say, and a right to organize for your ideas and positions in the union.
No outside money
The other big way in which unions are different from almost all other organizations is that they’re entirely self-funded. Members dues make the union run. This means, among other things, that no one else has a say in what the union does, says, or fights for. Unlike even the most benevolent of non-profits or foundations, there are no donors who might have official or unofficial sway, there is no customer sentiment to consider, and there’s no fear that funding will dry up if powerful people disapprove of this or that decision.
The right to a democratic union
So what are your rights as a union member? Believe it or not, in 1957, Congress passed a Union Members Bill of Rights. This was in response to some unions having undemocratic or outright corrupt leadership structures. Although union corruption is very, very rare (and certainly more rare than its counterpart, corporate corruption), these safeguards go a long way to making sure that any union member, whether the Secretary-Treasurer or a brand new member, can exercise their rights to influence the organization that they comprise, fund, and govern.
Your dues, your contract, your vote
Traditionally, you become a full-fledged union member once you start paying dues, and you start paying dues once your first contract is ratified -- meaning members vote on the contract after it’s negotiated, and a majority vote yes -- though some unions let you start participating even before you have a first contract. So when your boss says things like “the union is a third party,” they really don’t know what they’re talking about. The union is the membership -- no one else; not staff, not consultants, not politicians -- and the membership is you!